The Dying Earth is the first of Jack Vance’s Tales of the Dying Earth and contains six somewhat overlapping stories all set in the future when the sun is red and dim, much technology has been lost, and most of humanity has died out. Our planet is so unrecognizable that it might as well be another world, and evil has been “distilled” so that it’s concentrated in Earth’s remaining inhabitants.
But it’s easy to forget that a failing planet is the setting for the Dying Earth stories, for they are neither depressing nor bleak, and they’re not really about the doom of the Earth. These stories are whimsical and weird and they focus more on the strange people who remain and the strange things they do. Magicians, wizards, witches, beautiful maidens, damsels in distress, seekers of knowledge, and vain princes strive to outwit each other for their own advantage.
What appeals to me most is that The Tales of the Dying Earth are about how things could possibly be in an alternate reality. All speculative fiction does that, of course, but Jack Vance just happens to hit on the particular things that I find most fascinating to speculate about: neuroscience, psychology, sensation, and perception. These are subjects I study and teach every day, so I think about them a lot. One thing I love to consider, which happens to be a common theme in Vance’s work, is how we might experience life differently if our sensory systems were altered just a bit. I find myself occasionally asking my students questions like “what would it be like if we had retinal receptors that could visualize electromagnetic waves outside of the visible spectrum?” (So bizarre to consider, and yet so possible!) They look at me like I’m nuts, but I’m certain that Jack Vance would love to talk about that possibility. And even though The Dying Earth was first published in 1950, it doesn’t feel dated at all — it can still charm a neuroscientist 60 years later. This is because his setting feels medieval; technology has been forgotten. Thus, it doesn’t matter that there were no cell phones or Internet when Vance wrote The Dying Earth.
I also love the constant juxtaposition of the ludicrous and the sublimely intelligent. Like Monty Python, Willy Wonka, and Alice in Wonderland. [Aside: This makes me wonder how Johnny Depp would do at portraying a Jack Vance character…] Some of the scenes that involve eyeballs and brains and pickled homunculi make me think of SpongeBob Squarepants — the most obnoxious show on television, yet somehow brilliant. (Jack Vance probably wouldn’t appreciate that I’ve compared his literature to SpongeBob Squarepants. Or maybe he would!)
Lastly, I love Jack Vance’s “high language” (that’s what he called it), which is consistent and never feels forced. This style contributes greatly to the humor that pervades his work — understatement, irony, illogic, and non sequiturs are used to make fun of human behavior, and I find this outrageously funny. As just one example, in one story, Guyal has been tricked into breaking a silly and arbitrary sacred law in the land he’s traveling through:
“The entire episode is mockery!” raged Guyal. “Are you savages, then, thus to mistreat a lone wayfarer?”
“By no means,” replied the Castellan. “We are a highly civilized people, with customs bequeathed us by the past. Since the past was more glorious than the present, what presumption we would show by questioning these laws!”
Guyal fell quiet. “And what are the usual penalties for my act?”…
“You are indeed fortunate,” said the Saponid, “in that, as a witness, I was able to suggest your delinquencies to be more the result of negligence than malice. The last penalties exacted for the crime were stringent; the felon was ordered to perform the following three acts: first, to cut off his toes and sew the severed members into the skin at his neck; second, to revile his forbears for three hours, commencing with a Common Bill of Anathema, including feigned madness and hereditary disease, and at last defiling the hearth of his clan with ordure; and third, walking a mile under the lake with leaded shoes in search of the Lost Book of Kells.” And the Castellan regarded Guyal with complacency.
If you want to find out what three deeds Guyal had to perform, you’ll have to get the book!
I listened to Brilliance Audio’s production of The Dying Earth and the reader, Arthur Morey, was perfect. He really highlighted the humorous element of Vance’s work. It was a terrific production and I’m now enjoying the second Dying Earth audiobook (which is even better than this first one!). By the way, I want to say that I’m extremely pleased with Brilliance Audio for publishing these stories!
Jack Vance is my favorite fantasy author. His work probably won’t appeal to the Twilighters, but for those who enjoy Pythonesque surreal humor written in high style, or for fans of Lewis Carroll, Fritz Leiber, and L. Frank Baum, I suggest giving Jack Vance a try. If you listen to audiobooks, definitely try Brilliance Audio’s version!
There aren’t any other books in SF/Fantasy quite like Jack Vance’s TALES OF THE DYING EARTH. (I read the omnibus version shown here.) They have had an enormous influence on writers ranging from Gene Wolfe and George R.R. Martin to Gary Gygax, the creator of Dungeons & Dragons. These stories highlight Vance’s amazing imagination, precise yet baroque writing style, and somewhat archaic dialogue that disguises an incredibly dry wit and skeptical view of humanity. I’ve read SF and fantasy all my life, and I can say with confidence that his voice and imagery are unique. If you’ve encountered anything like it, it’s most likely that those writers took their cue from Vance.
This book, first published in 1950 by Hillman Publications, is very short (around 175 pages), and is actually a collection of six slightly overlapping but self-contained stories set in an incredibly distant future earth where the sun has cooled to a red color, the moon is gone, and humanity has declined to a pale shadow of former greatness, struggling to survive amongst the ruins of the past. The world is filled with various magicians, sorcerers, demons, ghouls, brigands, thieves, adventurers, etc. The events are episodic but are compulsively readable, and really beautifully written. The sense of melancholy and decline are ever-present, yet the characters themselves are not cowed by this situation, and strive to achieve their own goals even as the world moves toward a time when the sun will eventually snuff out like a candle. Despite this, many of the situations they find themselves in are quite funny, in a dark and ironic sort of way. For my money, this book is by far the best of the four and worthy of its classic reputation.
TALES OF THE DYING EARTH is a great way to experience the baroque language and fertile imagination of Jack Vance. The stories are worth reading for his understated sense of irony and humor alone, along with the bizarre creatures, magical spells, and quirky societies. It’s amazing that Vance was able to maintain a similar tone over 30 years of writing. For my money, though Cugel the Clever is Vance’s most memorable scoundrel, my favorite book was The Dying Earth, as it had a perfect balance of science and fantasy in an unforgettable setting, even 65 years after the initial publication.
The Dying Earth — (1950-1984) Publisher: One of Jack Vances enduring classics is his 1964 novel, The Dying Earth, and its sequels — a fascinating tale set on a far-future Earth, under a giant red sun that is soon to go out forever. Here, in one volume, is Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Award-winning author Jack Vance’s classic Dying Earth saga: The Dying Earth, The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugels Saga, Rialto the Marvellous. Travel to a far distant future, when the sunbleeds red in a dark sky, where magic and science is one, and the Earth has but a few short decades to live…